A Review of Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic — February 12, 2019
by Christopher Nelson
The wind of history blows through the poems in the second collection by Ilya Kaminsky, a wind that brings voices of defiant love and the smells of blunt horror, which find their way inside you. Welcome them. They have traveled long and far, and their message is urgent and necessary. Deaf Republic (Graywolf 2019) tells the story of parabolic Vasenka, a city occupied, brutalized, and rendered deaf by a military force. Among the many townspeople, we meet Sonya and Alfonso, the newlyweds; Momma Galya, the leader of an insurgency of puppeteers; and Petya, a boy, who is also a door through which history stampedes, making Vasenka a place haunted by what it once was.
Deafness quickly becomes a central metaphor in these poems, but it is a complicated metaphor, one of shapeshifting and developing meaning as the book unfolds. In the second poem a deaf boy is killed by soldiers, and deafness is the townspeople’s response to the murder, which is both a strategy against the occupation and a potent gesture of solidarity and memorialization. Kaminsky, who has been hard of hearing since age four, never portrays deafness as a deficiency or burden; in fact, through signing, the townspeople’s communication is inscrutable to the occupiers, making deafness a kind of freedom—both a community and a barricade between that community and the enemy. Occasionally poems are followed by captioned illustrations of hands signing. “A vegetable kiosk explodes, a tomato flies toward us and falls apart in the wind”—then the sign for “story,” palms together, opening like a book. The deafness of Vasenka imbues Deaf Republic with the gravity of the mythic. We emerge from these poems feeling as if the characters’ actions and words tremor to us through history, reminded that our lives are woven in the same tapestry.
Deaf Republic is dramatic verse, meaning it’s a play (essentially), replete with chorus. Much of the foundational poetry of the Western tradition is dramatic verse—think Sophocles and, much later, Shakespeare—yet our contemporary preference is decidedly lyrical. Kaminsky conflates these two modes so harmoniously that any of the lyric poems that comprise the book could be enacted on a stage or on film; there is a profoundly scenic quality to each. Consider the opening lines of “A Widower”:
Alfonso Barabinksi stands in Central Square
without a shirt,
rakes up snow and throws it on
drives the first syllable of his wife’s name into walls—
In fact, these poems should be made into a film or a stage play. But while a stage- or screenplay is arguably only a blueprint for a performance, Deaf Republic is impeccably complete as is. The poems read gracefully, as if each line came to the poet with ease and inevitability. The crispness of the images and the spareness of the poems—many of which are fewer than ten lines—suggest, paradoxically, years of labor.
In his internationally celebrated first book, Dancing in Odessa, Kaminsky writes in “Author’s Prayer” (his most famous poem), “the darkest / days must I praise.” That maxim is tested in Deaf Republic. Despite the barbarities in these pages—the innumerable barbarities of war—, the characters of Vasenka find if not occasional reasons for joy then reasons to persevere: the man who brings “a pearl of milk” from his lover’s breast to his mouth, the girls who steal oranges in their shirts when everyone is distracted by the knifing of a soldier, a pint of sunlit beer shared with a dog. Ultimately, though, Deaf Republic is not optimistic, nor is its message that the human spirit is indomitable. It is a brilliant and beautiful reminder of how horrible we are to each other. It’s as if, fifteen years after Odessa, in Vasenka, Kaminsky is asking, Why praise that which we should revolt against? Why remain silent in the knowledge of atrocity? He writes, “At the trial of God, we will ask: why did you allow all this? / And the answer will be an echo: why did you allow all this?” I imagine that “We Lived Happily during the War,” the prefatory poem of Deaf Republic, will become the book’s most known, for its poignancy and its crystallization of a primary theme.
And when they bombed other people’s houses, we
but not enough, we opposed them but not
The poem resolves:
… in the country of money,
our great country of money, we (forgive us)
lived happily during the war.
By placing this as the first poem of the book, Kaminsky bravely implicates all of us in the terror of the poems that follow. For the unique vision and the technical brilliance Kaminsky deserves praise, but it is his ethics that make this book magnificent. We come to know that we must praise even the darkest days because that is how human decency survives.